Feb 28

Russia’s shift south

As relations with the West soured during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s third term, Russia launched a ‘pivot to the East’, forging a far-reaching political alignment with China and promising development in Russia’s Far East regions. At the same time, Moscow turned south, rethinking ties with Pakistan and India, and developing a new role in Afghanistan. Russia’s new policies in Asia are carving out a growing role in what officials dub ‘Greater Eurasia’.

The most far-reaching changes in Russia’s foreign policy have come in South Asia. In the first two post-Soviet decades, Cold War relations in the region remained largely intact. Russia inherited the strong Soviet–Indian relationship while remaining wary of US ally Pakistan. 2014 saw an historic policy shift when Russia signed a defence cooperation agreement with Pakistan and announced a deal to sell MI-35M assault helicopters to the Pakistani military despite Indian concerns. In September 2016, Russian and Pakistani militaries held their first ever joint military exercise, and repeated the experience a year later.

Military ties have been accompanied by multi-billion-dollar energy investments. A Russian-built LNG pipeline will link Karachi to Lahore, and an offshore gas pipeline is also planned. Despite historical divisions, Pakistan and Russia increasingly find themselves on the same side in international forums, both politically and ideologically. Perhaps most importantly, both have close ties with China.

All this activity between Moscow and Islamabad has sparked concern in New Delhi, where commentators have been mulling the question: ‘is Moscow still India’s “tried and trusted” friend?’. Former chief of army staff of the Indian Army Nirmal Chander Vij worries about ‘the growing military cooperation between Moscow and Islamabad’. Russian analysts also worry that in forging closer ties with Pakistan, Russia might lose its much more important ally: India.

Officials on both sides have been quick to downplay talk of a cooling relationship, pointing out that Moscow’s long-standing ties with India remain much deeper than any new links with Pakistan. The two sides hold frequent high-level meetings, investment and trade is growing and India remains Russia’s biggest customer for arms exports. India purchased over US$1.5 billion worth of Russian military equipment in 2016, compared with just over US$45 million Russia sold to Pakistan. But the geopolitical tectonics are moving in a different direction. Russia is worried by the deepening ties between New Delhi and Washington, which is reflected in a growing market share for US companies in the Indian arms market.

A major driver of this realignment is the Afghanistan conflict, where Indian and Russian positions have diverged. After years of opposition to the Taliban, since 2015 Russia (alongside Iran) has been quietly engaging with Taliban leaders, using political contacts and — according to US and Afghan officials — using guns and money to gain leverage.

Russian officials hope that Taliban forces can constrain the growth of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan, which Moscow views as a direct threat to the Central Asian states and to Russia itself. Indian officials have criticised Russia’s new Afghan policy, but Russian thinking goes beyond immediate security threats. In the bigger picture, Russian officials are convinced that US policy in Afghanistan will fail. And since the Taliban will be part of a future political settlement, Russia will be better placed in any Afghan endgame if it has some influence over the movement.

Alongside its engagement with the Taliban, Russia is also playing the regional card. Here Moscow’s new friendship with Pakistan has proved invaluable. In December 2016 Moscow hosted talks with Pakistani and Chinese diplomats on Afghanistan, followed by a wider summit including India, the Afghan government and Iran in February 2017 and a broad-format session including Central Asian states in April 2017. In a further variant of what it terms the ‘Moscow format’ for talks, Russia revived the Shanghai Cooperation OrganisationAfghanistan Contact group, which had been moribund since 2009, with a meeting in Moscow in October 2017.

So far none of these talks have produced anything close to a breakthrough. But they serve a wider political purpose: establishing Moscow as an indispensable player in any future talks on Afghanistan and preparing a possible framework for a settlement that includes all the regional powers but excludes the West. Even if this format does not resolve the Afghan conflict in the near future, this pattern of diplomacy feeds into Russian aspirations for a new kind of regionalism to link South, Central and East Asia in a broader ‘Greater Eurasian Partnership’.

Western commentators tend to dismiss Russia’s Eurasian visions as little more than nostalgia for the Soviet past. Certainly, Russia’s ability to play a leading role across this region is limited by its current economic weakness and by the deep geopolitical fault lines that criss-cross the region. But Russia has also demonstrated its ability to combine intelligence, military, diplomatic and political instruments to develop a leading role for Russia in a string of conflicts across the Middle East and Asia.

The complex geopolitics of Afghanistan and its South Asian neighbours may yet prove a step too far even for Russia’s creative diplomacy, but there is no doubt that Moscow wants to be back as a major power in the region.

David Lewis is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific on 26 February 2018.